Arab Christians: An Introduction
For years, the term "Arab Christian" was used to categorize Christians in the Middle East. The concept, however, instead of being precisely defined, was intellectually misused and politically abused. Both Arab regimes and "Arabists" in the West attempted to lable all Christians living under the sovereignty of Arab states as "Arab Christians."
This denial of identity of millions of indigenous non-Arab nations can be equated to an organized ethnic cleansing on a politico-cultural levels, similarly to the Turkish attempts to eradicate the ethnic identity of the Kurds, whom they call "Mountain Turks," and the Assyrians, whom they define as "Semitic Turks."
Arab-Islamic regimes in the region assert that all those Christians who live within the confines of "Arab borders" are "Arab." With Arab nationalism at its peak, and "Arabist" circles at the apex of their political influence in the West, the pre-Arab ethnicities of the Middle East became the real underdogs of the region. The Arab Israeli conflict increased their crisis. Not only were the non-Arab ethnicities, particularly the non-Muslim ones, denied their basic rights, stripped from their ancestral lands, but they were pressured to participate in the general "war effort" conducted by the Arab regimes against a non-Arab nation, i.e. the Jews of Israel.
The gestalt of global Arab strategy in the region was to pit non-Arabs against other non-Arabs, after demonizing those who have formed their national state Israel, and fragmented those who weren't able to implement self determination. The Christians in the Middle East are not just a religious group, nor do they form one single community. The overwhelming majority of the Christians in the region are ethnically non-Arab, and their major common characteristic is their subjection to Arab colonialism and Islamic oppression for thirteen centuries. The Christians in the Middle East are not, as it was portrayed by the Arab regimes and many in the West, the followers of Christian faith among the Arab ethnic group. "Arab Christians" exist in few spots in the region, but they are a minuscule minority within the world of Middle Eastern Christianity.
Prior to the Arab Islamic invasion of the upper Middle East--the term invasion is crucial--most of the peoples of the region, with the exception of the ancient Israelites, were Christianized: Copts in Egypt, Assyro-Chaldeans in Mesopotamia, Nubian Africans in Sudan, Armenians in Asia Minor, Phoenicians (Arameans, Canaanites, Amorites) in Syria, and Lebanon. With the dispersion of the Jews by the Romans, limited number of Christians moved to Palestine from the north and the East. In Arabia, the majority was pagan, a large segment of Arab tribes converted to Christianity, and after the dismantlement of ancient Israel, the number of Jewish centers increased in the Peninsula. Therefore, prior to the Arab Islamic Conquest, the upper Middle East was not Arab, its overwhelming majority was Christian, and many Arabs in the Peninsula were Christians. These are the "Arab Christians."
Since the 7th century the geo-political landscape of the region changed dramatically. The Arab Islamic armies occupied the upper Middle East, the new order implemented an Arabization and an Islamization of the conquered people. The majority of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and Nubia, shifted to Arab Moslem. Numerically the native pre-Arab nations were reduced, and politically suppressed. The defeat, Arabization, and Islamization of the pre-Arab cultures, occurred during the dispersion of the Jews. The pre-Arab ethnicities, most of which were Christians, shrunk to enclaves, or to social categories. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the non-Arab Middle Eastern nations reasserted their historic national claims in many areas of their ancestral lands, which they never left. The Assyrians reclaimed their rights in northern Iraq, and north East Syria. The Lebanese Christians reaffirmed their identity in Mount Lebanon; the Copts attempted to reform in upper Egypt, and the Afro-Nubians called for self determination in southern Sudan. The historic national rights of these native nations were met with radical rejection by the established Arab regimes. Ethnic conflicts exploded in Sudan and Lebanon, while ethnic oppression was implemented in northern Iraq and Egypt. The political suppression of minor Christian communities was also applied in Syria and north Africa.
What happened to the "Arab Christians?" At the onset of Islam, all of the Arab Christian tribes were military defeated or subdued. Numbers of them converted to Islam for socio-political reasons. When the Arab Islamic armies conquered the upper Middle East, the "Christian Arabs" were erased from Arabia, their Churches destroyed or converted to Mosques. Only few clans survived in southern Iraq, southern Syria, and mainly in north west Arabia -which became Trans-Jordan a few centuries later. After the conquest, some of these Arab Christian clans emigrated to Palestine moving in from the East. They joined the non-Arab Christians who were present in Palestine after the Jewish dispersion, and seven centuries before the Arab invasion. There are two types of Christians in Palestine, and later on within the state of Israel. The non-Arab Middle Eastern Christians, and Arabs who are Christians. The largest Christian nation are the Copts, who number about 12 million. The Egyptian government recognize only 2.5 million. The most concentrated and socially organized nation are the Lebanese Christians (mostly Maronites) who number 1.5 million in Lebanon and about seven million in the diaspora. The Assyro-Chaldeans of Iraq are about 1 million in Mesopotamia, and one million in the diaspora. The Christians of Syria are about a million. Non-Arab Syriacs (Arameans), Arabized Syriacs, and Arab Christians (mostly Orthodox), in addition to Armenians. In southern Sudan the African ethnic nationality is about seven million, Christians and Animists. There are small Christian communities in Iran and Turkey. There are no Saudi or Kuwaiti Christian. The Christian nations living within the confines of Arab states are about twenty million! So who are the "Arab Christians" to whom Arab regimes and Arabists in the West refer? First, they are not recognized as distinct ethnic identities, but rather as segments from the wide "Arab nation" who are "of Christian faith." This indicates the non- readiness of these regimes and their dominant ideologies to recognize the later's fundamental, political rights, and subsequently their rights to "national lands." Second, the Arab-Arabist duo do not admit the real numeric size of these so-called "Arab Christians." In Egypt they are recognized as 2.5 million, in Iraq, 250,000, in Sudan, 2 million, in Syria, 500,000, and in Lebanon, 25% of the population! Not only have the Arab dominant powers subverted the numbers, but they have attempted to subvert the identities of all pre-Arab nationalities in the region, including those who converted to Islam, such as the Berbers of north Africa, and the Kurds.
Where are the real "Arab Christians?" They are dispersed between Jordan, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian autonomous territories. They are the remnants of the Arab Christian clans who escaped Islamization and more recently the end product of Evangelization. They are estimated to be 200,000 in Syria, a hundred thousand in Jordan and an equal number or more among the Palestinian-Arab populations, including within the Arab--Israeli population. The Christians in Israel are composed of Arabs, Arabized, non-Arabs, and few non-Middle Eastern. Although Arabs and Arabized are the majority (around 70%) the non-Arabs who are the descendants of pre-Arabs are in high numbers. Among them are the Maronites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Armenians. Ironically many in Israel are not familiar with the existence of non-Arab Christians in their country. This misperception led many to believe that all Christians in the Middle East are "Arabs," and as anti-Israel, as the Arab mainstream in the region. Most of the Israelis, as do most of the Western public opinion simply do not know that there are other "non-Arab" nations in the region, also seeking the establishment of their independent homelands. Many in Israel and the West perceive the Christians of the region as represented by Hanan Ashrawi, George Habash, or Michel Aflaq. Whereas the majority of the Christian nations do not recognize themselves as Arabs. Their causes are not reported, their present or past leaders such as John Garang, Ibrahim Hilal, Bashir Gemayel, Mar Shimun, and others are marginalized. Even the mini-community of Christian Arabs is not at ease with its ethnic brethren. As a result of the surge of Islamic fundamentalism, all the Christians in the Middle East realize that they travel in the same boat. >From the pogroms of Copts in Egypt, the ethnic cleansing of South Sudanese, the oppression of Lebanese Christians, to forced Arabization of the Syro-Mesopotamian Christians, the 20 million non-Arab Christians are systematically targeted. The 0.6 million Arab Christians, including those living within the Jewish state are experiencing one of their most severe choices: Surrender to Islamization, or join the pan-Middle East Christian boat, as a way to survive and maintain their spiritual identity.
Professor Walid Phares
Dr Walid Phares hold degrees in Law and Political Science from St Joseph University in Beirut, a masters in International Law from the University of Lyons (France), and a Ph.D. in International Relations and Strategic Studies from the University of Miami.
Dr Phares is currently a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University and a visiting scholar at Florida International University.
Dr. Phares authored eight books on the Middle East including: "The Christian People of Lebanon: Thirteen Centuries of Struggle," ; "The Background of the Islamic Revolution of Iran," [Arabic, 1986]; and his most recent book "Lebanese Christian Nationalism: The Rise and fall of an Ethnic Resistance," [Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995].
Dr. Phares has published more than 300 articles in English, French, and Arabic. He is frequently quoted and interviewed in the local and international press, and has a number of research published in the scholarly journals. He was the editor of Mashrek International monthly magazine dedicated to the Christian minorities in the Middle East (1982-1986), and the publisher of Mideast Newswire analytical newsletter (1993-1997).
Dr Walid Phares,
Miami, Florida 33233
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